Far From Heaven (United States, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Welcome to the world of "Father Knows Best", white picket fences, and brilliant fall colors. Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven takes us to Hartford, Connecticut, circa 1957. However, unlike most traditional period piece dramas, the intention here isn't just to replicate an American community as it was a half-century ago, but to emulate that community as it would have been portrayed in a movie of the era. One of Haynes' goals in crafting Far From Heaven is to emulate the so-called "women's films" of Douglas Sirk. In terms of style, visual approach, and general thematic content, Haynes has come as close as it's possible to in re-creating a '50s domestic melodrama for '00s consumption.

It would have been easy for Haynes to stray into parody – some of the more quaint elements are ripe for it. But, by retaining a high degree of emotional honesty and by never betraying the integrity of the characters, Haynes avoids the misstep. In doing so, he proves that this kind of melodrama, as outdated as it might at first seem, remains a valid form of cinematic expression. Far From Heaven begins almost as a nostalgic excursion, but quickly detours into a powerful and telling story that examines forbidden love, racial tension, and other issues that are as valid today as they were in the 1950s.

Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) has a seemingly perfect life. Her husband, Frank (Dennis), is a recognized TV salesman. As per the American dream, she has two children and a comfortable home. She is content with the way things are, until Frank inadvertently provides a shock to her system. One night, when he is supposedly working late, Cathy hand-delivers him dinner, only to find him in a torrid embrace with another man. Afterwards, Frank confesses that he has always had homosexual feelings and promises to seek out a doctor to help him "beat this thing." While Frank is struggling with his sexuality, Cathy finds herself drawn to the quiet, kind gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). Raymond is black, and, on an occasion when he and Cathy are seen in public, a firestorm of nasty rumors begins. Raymond's idealistic belief that color should not be a social barrier are soon put to the test, and Cathy finds that her platonic relationship with Raymond is as much of a danger to her family as is Frank's homosexuality.

For his inspiration, Haynes has used Sirk's All That Heaven Allows. That movie tells of an older widow (played by Jane Wyman) who falls for a younger man (Rock Hudson), and, as a result of the relationship, faces the disapproval of her friends, family, and neighbors. Haynes has taken the basic theme of forbidden love and expanded it, widening the boundaries and showing it in two potentially inflammatory incarnations. Homosexuality was very much a taboo subject in the 1950s, and interracial relationships were looked down on by those in both the white and black communities (the thought being that one should stick to one's own "kind").

Visually, Far From Heaven is easily one of the most stunning non-special effects intensive motion pictures of the year. The colors, which are rich and warm, are designed to evoke the vibrant Technicolor images used by Sirk. Many of the scenes take place in the Northeast during the Fall (despite being set in Hartford, they were filmed in New Jersey), and the brilliance of the multi-hued leaves comes across on screen. Elmer Bernstein's score, which uses elements from the music of All That Heaven Allows, is a fitting audio companion for the visuals and the story they present.

Donning a blonde wig, Julianne Moore makes her second appearance for Haynes (she previously starred in Safe). It's an effective, understated performance that avoids going over-the-top into the realm of the caricature. Dennis Quaid plays against type as a bitter, conflicted man trying to cope with his homosexuality. And Dennis Haysbert, who made this movie while working on the weekly TV series "24", gives a strong portrayal of the overly optimistic gardener. Support is provided by Patricia Clarkson as Cathy's best friend, Eleanor.

Haynes' style and approach draw the viewer in gently, but firmly. Once we are established in the seemingly-perfect world of Cathy and Frank, he allows their marriage and their lives to unravel before our eyes. Far From Heaven is not "realistic" in the traditional sense of the word (Haynes calls it "hyper-realistic"), but the emotions of the characters are genuine, and we feel for them and with them. In the end, Far From Heaven tells a simple story, but there's nothing remotely simple about the impact it has upon the viewer.

Far From Heaven (United States, 2002)

Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson
Screenplay: Todd Haynes
Cinematography: Edward Lachman
Music: Elmer Bernstein
U.S. Distributor: Focus Films
Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 2002-11-08
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1